Earlier on Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was compelled to comment on the State of the Union address by U.S. President Barack Obama. The address, which described Russia’s actions in Ukraine as “bullying”, but one which has ultimately led to the defeat of Russian objectives, was defined by Lavrov as “aggressive”. While the speech does describe Washington’s Iranian, Cuban and Middle Eastern efforts as diplomatic victories of a nation destined to rule the world (supposedly) for its own good, it was painfully correct in its assessment of Russia’s international position.
In his speech, President Obama formulated American diplomatic strength with regards to the Ukrainian crisis rather briefly. He insisted that the United States are “upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small by opposing Russian aggression and supporting Ukraine’s democracy”, adding that “America…stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters”.
The first statement is near-delusional, for the Ukrainian oligarchic morass is anything but a democratic government, and the assertion that small nations do not or cannot be bullied by bigger ones is quite simply a preposterous one. The second statement does, however, ring very true. Russia has committed a number of grave strategic mistakes that have put its economy to a grinding halt and have left it in search for partners.
Picture a group of children living in a glass palace. They grow together and share similar experiences inside their remarkable architectural monument. They have made up their own rules of their own games on their own terrains. When something happens outside the walls of their palace, they cannot see it clearly as the overlapping walls of the structure crook the image. The children interpret the picture not through what they see, for it is an unreliable image, but through the possible explanations created by their own limited set of rules and perceptions.
This is how Western leaders (and many of their followers) seem to understand international events; their entire worldview is skewed in a black and white juxtaposition of a “free world” pitted against dozens of “undemocratic regimes” that need to be converted. There is no middle ground. Anyone living in a non-democratic country inevitably suffers under the burden of dictatorship and human rights abuses. Whenever the chance for grassroots regime change appears, European and American leaders grab it and issue support for any self-declared democracy movement on the horizon. If Russia, a deeply subconscious Cold War-era threat, would suffer a setback from these disturbances, that would be even better.
Moscow answered to the “colour revolutions” in post-Soviet countries with adequately covert measures which kept the governments of Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan more or less in line with Moscow. The Georgian pro-Western “revolutionaries” set the stage for their own demise by sending troops to the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But Vladimir Putin and his government evidently failed to come up with a proper response to the “glass palace perception” in post-Maidan Ukraine.
A quagmire close to home
Even before the rise of the Maidan movement, Western media had already been drumming up concern over Russia’s supposed lack of freedoms through widespread coverage of anti-gay legislation, racism and trials against journalists or self-proclaimed activists. No Russian stance was valid, it was all propaganda of an “ultra-nationalist”, homophobic, anti-democratic regime which deserves no place in the elitarian club of free and democratic nations. And when pro-EU protests rocked Ukraine, this meant two things for the children of the glass palace. First, the brave Ukrainian people are rising and breaking away from the tyranny of their pro-Russian dictator, so they must be supported. Second, the aggressive eastern neighbour must be kept in check, and none of its demands should be considered.
Russia’s first major mistake was its attempt to discredit the Maidan movement and the armed protesters. In the eyes of the Western world, no “freedom activists” can be discredited, especially if they fight against a pro-Russian oligarch. The information war against the new, Western-backed Kiev government could have never succeeded because delusions are impossible to shatter. There is no way to convince the Western public and leadership, both conditioned to perceive only through their limited understanding of freedom, that the Ukrainian shift in direction would alter regional security and politics into something unpredictable.
Ukraine, a country of 45 million people hosting key Russian naval facilities, would have shifted towards the European Union and NATO. It is still very likely to receive some kind of integration with these organisations if it does not receive membership, a goal that seems out of reach even in the long-term. The proper course of action to this would have been, ironically, a much more aggressive Russian response. Just like Saudi Arabia intervened in Bahrain to save its government from being toppled, Moscow should have exercised a rapid, full-scale military operation designed to restore order to the country. It certainly would have produced significant diplomatic fallout, but its successful execution would have prevented both the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine.
Instead, these two operations now serve only to continuously grind Russia’s image and to negatively impact its economy. Neither of these moves has so far prevented Ukraine from turning West, and neither of them has shattered the walls of the glass palace, telling its inhabitants to cease their dangerous game of eastward expansion. Whether Ukraine is a sovereign state which can choose its geopolitical direction is irrelevant. It’s a big game for big players where international law has the weight of a college paper, and Russia is far from being the first one to break the rules. But Putin played his cards incorrectly, failed to send a strong signal to his Western counterparts and is now left with an aching problem right at his country’s southwestern border.
With the Minsk Agreement ceasefire practically collapsing in January 2015, Russia finds itself in an ever-worsening position. Moscow is now attempting to offset the economic effects of its actions by introducing the Eurasian Economic Union while scrambling diplomatic assets to strengthen ties with Iran, Cuba and a handful of other countries. But, even before the Ukrainian events, Russia failed to attract significant allies of its own. Those it already has are few and far between, and without vital economies.
This is largely due to the passive approach to foreign affairs in the post-Yeltsin years, when domestic restoration was prioritised over international relations. Russian authorities did not seem to pursue close contacts with either traditional (Libya, Algeria) or untraditional (South Korea, South Africa) partners. Most of the exchanges occurring were in the arms manufacturing sector and few other spheres of economic cooperation were ever considered. The embargo on EU food imports in 2014 showcased the importance of having a network of diverse and healthy trade partners worldwide – something Russia disregarded for nearly a decade.
As a non-democratic country in the eyes of the West, it will never be a fully equal partner to the European Union, much less so to the United States. Nobody in the glass palace will trade with you if you don’t follow the rules, especially if you’re big enough to make your own set of rules, like Russia. Moscow’s long-term objective should be to strengthen its own sphere, something it is apparently trying to do with the Eurasian Economic Union. But merely filling the shoes of the former Soviet Union will not be enough – the Russian government needs to be creative, proactive and flexible on the international scene, especially among rising countries in Africa and South America. It should also keep in mind that China will remain a passive competitor.
Breaking the walls
In brief, Russian foreign policy moves over the past few years have largely backfired. Instead of securing Russia’s geopolitical clout, they have further reduced it. Russia also failed to send clear signals to Western countries, which consequently continued to meddle in the post-Soviet space. No major allies gravitated towards Moscow, and many of its formerly close ones, like Libya, Ethiopia, Algeria and Vietnam, have either fallen or strayed away to greener pastures. Its economy might still not be in tatters, but President Obama’s address was correct in its assessment of Russia as an isolated state.
Putin’s most reasonable move would now be to make sure the conflict in Ukraine is resolved and its pro-Western orientation corrected by other means. The glass walls might break from the inside, but nobody would want to go out of the palace when they can hear something rumbling outside without sending a coherent message.